By Tom Philpott
A retired Army sergeant first class living in Northeast El Paso, Texas, says he and his wife will stop shopping on Fort Bliss if the Department of Defense, as planned, allows commissary prices to climb within 10 percent of local grocers.
“I am not the only one here who thinks the same way,” said Louis Lindemann. “By the time we pay for gas alone, we could go to the local Albertson’s or the Walmart food store around the corner.”
His email arrived moments after I had concluded a phone interview with retired Army Major Gen. Richard E. Beale Jr., former director of the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA), who believes Lindemann is correct.
So many retirees, Reserve and Guard members and even active duty families would stop shopping on base, if DoD is allowed to slash commissary budgets, that the entire military resale system would be at risk, Beale said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, backed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wants DeCA’s annual appropriation of $1.4 billion cut to $400 million by 2017. Average shopper savings of 30 percent would fall to 10 percent as commissaries become self-supporting like the military exchange systems.
Beale, who led DeCA from 1992 to 1999 both as an officer and as the agency’s first civilian director, said such a deep cut is enormously risky.
“The role of the dice is not just on whether the commissaries will survive, it’s whether the entire system can survive,” including exchanges and the on-base quality-of-life programs that exchange profits now support.
“I certainly understand the predicament in which our civilian and military leaders find themselves,” Beale said. With defense budgets squeezed and automatic cuts threatened if Defense officials don’t identify enough cuts on their own, “there are no good choices.”
However, Beale said, leaders are mistaken to assume commissaries can be converted into self-supporting stores and still offer discounts that attract enough customers to sustain a low-cost grocery benefit.
“What makes the commissary benefit are the appropriated dollars,” Beale said, urging me to underscore the point. “And every dollar you take away from the appropriation is a dollar out of service members’ pockets.”
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: email@example.com